The Council of Constance (1414-1418) is numbered among the 21 Councils of the Church, but one of its decrees, Haec Sancta of April 6th 1415 is considered heretical, as it asserts the supremacy of the Council over the Roman Pontiff.
At Constance, Haec Sancta was applied in the decree Frequens, (October 9th 1417,) which prescribed a Council for five years later, another after seven years and then one every ten years. With this, it attributed de facto to the Council the function of a permanent collegial body which collaborated with the Pope and de facto was superior.
Martin V, elected Pope at Constance in 1417, in the Bull Inter cunctas of February 22nd 1418, recognized the ecumenicity of the Council of Constance and all of its decisions, albeit with the generically restrictive formula: “in favorem fidei et salutem animarum”. We do not know whether the Pope had shared, at least in part, the conciliarist theories or perhaps was obliged to take this stance under pressure from the cardinals who had elected him. De facto he did not repudiate Haec Sancta and applied the decree, Frequens, rigorously, by fixing the date of the new general Council, which was held at Pavia-Siena (1423-1424), and designated the city of Basel as the venue for the successive assembly. He died however on February 21st 1431 and the assembly opened under his successor Gabriele Condulmer, elected Pope Eugene IV on March 3rd 1431.
At the very opening of the Council of Basel a dispute between two parties erupted: those loyal to the Papacy and the partisans of the concilarist theories, which made up the majority of the conciliar Fathers. A tug-of-war resulted in various ups and downs. In the first phase, Eugene IV withdrew his approval from the rebel Fathers of Basel. Subsequently, giving into political and ecclesiastical pressures, he backtracked with the Bull, Duduum Dacrum of December 15th 1433, revoked the dissolution of the Council formerly decreed by him, ratifying the documents that it had emanated until that point, and thus also Haec Sancta which the Basel Fathers proclaimed as their magna carta. When he realized they wouldn’t have stopped with their demands, the Pope repudiated once again the action of the Council, transferring it to Ferrara (1438), to Florence (1439) and afterwards to Rome (1443). The transfer was however rejected by the majority of the conciliar Fathers, who stayed on at Basel, continuing the works.
At this point the ‘minor’ Schism of the West (1439-1449) commenced and entered history (to be distinguished from the Great Schism (1378-1417 that had preceded it). The Council of Basel deposed Eugene IV as a heretic and elected Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy as Antipope with the name of Felix V. From Florence where the Council had been transferred, Eugene IV excommunicated the Antipope and the schismatic Fathers of Basel.
Once again, Christendom found itself split, but if the concilarist theologians had prevailed at the time of the Great Schism, in this phase the Pope was sustained by a great theologian: the Spanish Dominican, Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468) (not to be confused with the Inquisitor of the same name). Torquemada decorated by Eugene IV with the title Defensor fidei, is author of a Summa de Ecclesia, wherein he affirms with vigour the primacy of the Pope and his infallibilitas.
In this work, he dissipates with great precision the ambiguities that had been created in the 14th century starting with the hypothesis of a heretic Pope. This case, according to the Spanish theologian, is concretely possible, but the solution to the problem should not be sought in any way in concilarism, which negates pontifical supremacy. The possibility of heresy in the Pope, does not compromise the dogma of infallibility, as even if he wanted to define a heresy ex cathedra, his office would be lost at that very same moment. (Pacifico Massi, Magistero infallibile del Papa nella teologia di Giovanni de Torquemada, Marietti, Torino 1957, pp. 117-122). Torquemada’s theses were developed the following century by one of his Italian confreres, Cardinal Cajetan.
The Council of Florence was very important as, on July 6th 1439, it promulgated the decree Laetentur Coeli et exultet terra, which brought the Eastern Schism to an end, but principally because it condemned concilarism definitively, by confirming the doctrine of the Pope’s supreme authority over the Church. On September 4th 1439, Eugene IV, defined solemnly: “We likewise define that the holy Apostolic See, and the Roman Pontiff, hold the primacy throughout the entire world; and that the Roman Pontiff himself is the successor of blessed Peter, the chief of the Apostles, and the true vicar of Christ, and that he is the head of the entire Church, and the father and teacher of all Christians; and that full power was given to him in blessed Peter by our Lord Jesus Christ, to feed, rule, and govern the universal Church, as is attested also in the acts of ecumenical councils and the holy canons.” (Denz-H, n. 1307).
In the letter, Etsi dubitemus, of April 21st 1441, Eugene IV condemned the heretics of Basel and the “diabolical founders” of the ‘conciliarism’ doctrine: Marsilius of Padua, Jean of Jandun and William of Ockham (Epistolae pontificiae ad Concilium Florentinum spectantes, Pontificio Istituto Orientale, Roma 1946, p. 28, 24-35), but towards Haec Sancta he held a hesitant stance, proposing what in modern terms might be defined as a “hermeneutic of continuity”. In the decree of September 4th 1439, Eugene IV states that the superiority of Councils over the Pope, asserted by the Basel Fathers on the basis of Haec Sancta, is “a bad interpretation given by the Basel Fathers themselves, which de facto is revealed as contrary to the genuine sense of the Sacred Scriptures, of the Holy Fathers, and of the Council of Constance itself.” (Decreto del 4 settembre 1439, in Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, EDB, Bologna 2002. p. 533). Eugenio IV himself, ratified the Council of Constance as a whole and in its decrees, excluded: “any prejudice to the rights, dignity and pre-eminence of the Apostolic See” as he writes to his legate on July 22nd 1446.
The hermeneutic of “continuity” thesis between Haec Sancta and the Tradition of the Church was soon abandoned. Haec Sancta is certainly the authentic act of a legitimate ecumenical Council, ratified by three Popes, but this is not enough to render binding on the doctrinal level a Magisterial document which is posed in contrast with the perennial teaching of the Church. Today we regard that only those documents, which do not damage the rights of the Papacy and do not contrast with the Tradition of the Church can be accepted from the Council of Constance. These documents do not include Haec Sancta, which is a formally heretical conciliar act.
Historians and theologians explain that Haec Sancta can be repudiated since it was not a dogmatic definition, inasmuch as the typical formulas such as anathema sit are missing and verbs like “order, define, establish, decree and declare”. The real importance of the decree is of a disciplinary and pastoral nature and does not imply infallibility (cfr. for example the voice Concile de Constance, of Cardinal Alfred Baudrillart, in the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique , III, col. 1221 (coll. 1200-1224).
The Schism of Basel ended in 1449 when the Antipope Felix V reached an agreement with Eugene V’s successor, Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455). Felix solemnly abdicated and the Pope made him a cardinal and Papal vicar. The condemnation of conciliarism was repeated by the Fifth Lateran Council, the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council.
Those today who are defending the institution of the papacy, need to accompany the study of these dogmatic definitions with an in-depth analysis of the works of the great theologians of the First and Second Scholastics, in order to find all the elements necessary in this doctrinal mine to tackle the present crisis in the Church.